‘Too much masking is real’: More districts call on students to mask up outside, but scientists are skeptical
Linda Jacobson | September 22, 2021
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It wasn’t long after school started in California’s Solana Beach School District that some classrooms shifted to remote learning because of positive COVID-19 cases. During the first four weeks of school, there were 19 positive cases among students and staff and eight classrooms in quarantine.
But on Aug. 30, the 2,800-student district began requiring students to wear masks outside as well as in the building — and hasn’t had to send a whole classroom home since. The new policy was prompted by the state’s revised quarantine protocols for unvaccinated students, which allow asymptomatic students to stay in school if they meet several conditions, including wearing masks both inside and outside.
“We are optimistic it is working,” said Kristie Towne, manager of board and superintendent operations for the Solana district, part of San Diego County. “The policy is meant to keep as many children in school [and] in class as much as possible.”
With the recent rise in positive cases due to the more transmissible Delta variant, districts like Solana Beach are now enforcing additional measures — policies that go beyond recommendations from most state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says masks aren’t needed during recess. The Los Angeles Unified School District was among the first to institute the practice and several other California districts have followed suit. Others as far as Vermont and North Carolina have instituted similar measures but are targeting them to younger students or athletes. One problem: The research behind such moves is pretty thin.
“Outside, there’s an infinite volume of air to dilute the virus,” said Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatric infectious disease expert at the University of California, Davis.
Dr. Benjamin Linas, a Boston University epidemiologist, warns that outdoor masking could even be counterproductive.
“If there is any hope of successfully implementing masks when we need them — indoors during Delta surge — then we cannot insist on masks when we do not need them, and we should not routinely ‘round up’ when not certain,” he said. “Too much masking is real.”
Advocacy groups that were already fighting the state’s mandate that students wear masks indoors argue that requiring them outdoors further hinders children’s social development.
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“Outdoors our kids need to be breathing fresh air. They need to have social interaction and share smiles,” said Sharon McKeeman, who founded Let Them Breathe and in July filed a lawsuit, with Reopen California Schools, against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state health department and other officials. “These restrictions are arbitrary, and they are infringing our kids’ rights.”
The measures came as some districts faced criticism for quarantining too many students without symptoms.
In August, thousands of students in Los Angeles and other districts missed class and did not always have access to remote learning. Other California districts requiring masks outside include the 12,000-student Palo Alto Unified School District, where the most recent data shows two cases districtwide, and the 9,600-student Alameda Unified School District, which had 27 cases in August and seven so far in September.
‘The benefits are uncertain’
Some opponents of mask requirements note that the World Health Organization, which President Joe Biden rejoined as soon as he became president, doesn’t recommend masks at all for children 5 and under.
A growing body of research on transmission of the virus shows that the proportion of cases originating outside are well below 10 percent and could be even less than 1 percent, according to a June article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
International studies provide further evidence of significantly low risk. A Chinese study found that out of 7,300 cases, one outbreak resulting in two cases was linked to an outdoor conversation between two people. An Irish study showed that about one in 1,000 cases was due to outdoor transmission.
Most outdoor cases are linked to lengthy interactions between people or crowded events, studies show.
“I am having a very hard time thinking of when a school would generate such an opportunity for transmission,” Linas said. “It is not recess or outdoor classwork. Perhaps if a school had an outdoor pep rally in a relatively small stadium with full bleachers and kids on the field, too. I am struggling to come up with a realistic scenario.”
Experts stress that with the Delta variant, local vaccination rates of those 12 and above should guide decisions about whether additional caution is needed.
That’s why Andrew Hayes, a school board member in the Lakeside Union Elementary School District in San Diego County, questions the governor’s inside mask mandate to begin with.
“The state is bragging about being at an 80 percent vaccination rate, but we are still having all these mitigation strategies everywhere,” Hayes said. “I understand that people want to follow the experts, but they aren’t allowing the experts in education to make decisions.”
His district has not yet required masks outside, but surrounding districts have.
Hayes is among district leaders in California who want to loosen local mask requirements in violation of the statewide mandate requiring students to wear them indoors. The California Department of Public Health on Aug. 23 sent districts a letter stating they could face fines and civil lawsuits if they don’t enforce masking.
The dynamic is the opposite of that in Florida, where districts mandating masks are locked in a protracted legal battle with a Republican governor who says parents should choose.
California isn’t the only state where some districts are going above and beyond CDC guidelines, which state: “In general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors” for play, recess and physical education. But other examples are more targeted.
The Essex Westford School District, near Burlington, Vermont, requires masks outdoors for students in K-5 if they can’t socially distance. The Madison, Wisconsin district is requiring masks outside for elementary and middle school students, and the Wake County district in North Carolina requires athletes to wear masks outside when they’re not actively participating in a game or practice.
In California, McKeeman, with Let Them Breathe, said even in districts that don’t require students to wear masks outside, “there’s still a lot of enforcement to keep it on anyway.”
Some experts recognize the challenges teachers and other school staff members face when children are constantly taking masks on and off. Blumberg, who said he still wears a mask when he goes to the farmer’s market, noted that many classroom buildings in the state’s schools are connected by outside hallways.
For the sake of consistency, he said, “It’s easier to just say, ‘Mask while at school and don’t think about it.’”